Immediately after November’s election, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the top priority of Republicans in the 112th Congress would be to make Barack Obama a one-term president. Coming off a stunning victory — the GOP picked up six seats in the Senate and 63 in the House to take back control of that body — the statement seemed much more than bravado. Obama is on the ropes.
To fulfill this wish, McConnell and the incoming Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, will have to avoid mistakes the congressional GOP made after its 1994 triumph. The 104th Congress that took office in January 1995 was the first under full Republican control in 40 years. Under the strong and visionary leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich, it seemed as though it could sweep all before it, including Democratic President Bill Clinton. But Clinton handily defeated Bob Dole, who had been Senate majority leader, in the 1996 election.
So what advice could Dole and Gingrich give McConnell and Boehner as they seek to undermine Obama? I would suggest three pieces:
• Don’t over-promise. The centerpiece of the Republicans’ 1994 campaign was the House candidates’ “Contract with America”. This was a series of ambitious and disparate bills Gingrich pledged to bring to the House floor for a vote in the first hundred days of Republican rule. Although only 25 percent of voters in 1994 had heard of the Contract, it became the focus of Washington as the 104th Congress began.
Nobody promised the provisions of the Contract would become law. But the exuberance of the Republicans and the media’s fixation on the list led Americans to believe that was the intention. When bill after bill met resistance in the Senate and from the White House, Gingrich’s agenda was labeled a failure. As their belief in their leader and own infallibility waned, Republicans turned on one another. And, as the internecine party warfare intensified, Clinton became stronger.
This time around the Republicans have their “Pledge to America.” It reads much more like a party platform than a legislative wish list. It is broad, vague, and full of banal statements about mom and apple pie. Individual Republicans have submitted more-detailed plans including a bold and intelligent “Roadmap” to slash the deficit from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee. But as a party, Republicans have heeded the first lesson and are committed to broad principles rather than policy details.
• The president occupies what Teddy Roosevelt called the “bully pulpit.” He can use the unrelenting media attention to his advantage. He can frame the debate and blast his Republican opponents who, with a House majority, are now at least partially accountable for the government’s performance.
Even Gingrich could not command the attention Clinton did in 1995 and 1996. A study by Douglas Harris found that although Gingrich received triple the media coverage of previous speakers, the president still received 10 times more than Gingrich did. Republicans need to make sure they continue to communicate with the American people. This is particularly important because the message must be more nuanced than the largely “bash the status quo” argument of the past two years.
• Public opinion is like a thermostat. When public policy seems to be going too far too fast in one direction, Americans are quick to pull it back. The median voter has moved palpably to the right since the 1960s.
But the public is still quite cautious and conservative in the traditional sense of the word. The significant opposition to health care reform this spring came as much from individuals’ satisfaction with their own personal situation as it did an ideological aversion to Obama’s proposal. A slim majority of Americans profess to prefer divided government — with the presidency controlled by one party and Congress by the other — over unified government.
House Republicans forgot this lesson in 1995-96. Much of their agenda — and indeed much of their shrill rhetoric — made Clinton look reasonable and moderate. Boehner and McConnell need to generate their proposals carefully and try to prevent an energetic party, particularly in the House, from making Obama look like a responsible leader with a steady hand.
Of course there are some big differences between the 112th and 104th Congresses. To begin with, Republicans do not hold the Senate today. What is more, none of the current candidates for the party’s 2012 presidential nomination are in the congressional leadership. Dole’s emergence as the GOP nominee in 1996 greatly hindered efforts to undermine Clinton.
In fact, if you’re Boehner or McConnell, it might be a good idea to tone down the efforts to defeat the president in 2012. No victorious presidential candidate or sitting president has flipped a congressional chamber to his party since Ronald Reagan put the Senate in GOP hands in 1980. Since then Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama have all lost houses of Congress for their parties.